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Sabbatical, Day 61: Not Perfect, Just Forgiven – Or More?

I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)

So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”

And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)

The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering.  My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it. 

And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians. 

Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.

I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.

I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?

The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’

So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.

As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”